• Posted on April 23, 2015
Time For Bed Fred books

Dogs!

I am a dog person, and my attraction to those of the canine persuasion extends to my taste in picture books. Old dogs and pups, dogs in capes, stinky dogs, dogs who run curio museums, dogs named Plum, dog-like coyotes and wolves, and just plain old mutts; each in possession of some unique quality of dog captured and expressed by the best writers and illustrators around. I love ’em all, so why not run them in a pack? Gather all the reviews in one post, for my own amusement, yes, but also to provide a helpful list for fellow barkophiles in search of beautiful dog books. Of course, this is but a smattering of what is available, and there are still dog books on my shelves that have yet to make it to this blog, but for now I invite you to play ball with these titles, which are listed in no particular order. Click on the links for the original, and in most cases, much longer reviews.

Dream Dog cover4I want to start with DREAM DOG by Lou Berger, with illustrations by David Catrow. Dogs display an infinite range of emotions, and not just on their faces. From a wave of a tail to the swivel of an ear, dogs radiate emotion with their entire body. Not only has David Catrow mastered the art of dog expressiveness, together Berger and Catrow have captured the joy so many of us feel in the presence of a dog. Dream Dog is a wondrous, funny book, full of kid energy and soaring hearts (mostly my own).

Dream Dog Waffle and Bumper

Frustratingly dogless, Harry uses his X-35 Infra-Rocket Imagination Helmet to conjure up a dream dog because his father, sensitized by his work in a pepper factory, sneezes around real dogs. Harry’s dog Waffle is big and friendly – an adorable mix of actual breeds and a boy’s sweet imagination. Eventually, Harry’s dad gets another job and buys Harry a real dog, who he names Bumper. All three become friends until one day Waffle races after a cloud and simply wafts away, “woofing happily” as Bumper and Harry play in the field below. Dream Dog will hit you in the feels in the best possible way.

Say Hello to Zorro!Speaking of books that drive straight to the heart, I cannot say enough about the Zorro and Mister Bud series about two unlikely housemutts who have (so far) starred in three books: SAY HELLO TO ZORRO, ZORRO GETS AN OUTFIT, and MISTER BUD WEARS THE CONE. Carter Goodrich has not only created funny and exceedingly loveable characters, he has also imbued them with the full range of dog emotion, from joy to shame, without losing sight of their essential dogginess. The ample-snouted Mister Bud and his energetic roomie Zorro (a pug) have the sort of localized adventures familiar to most dogs (and their people) and it is in these otherwise ‘normal’ situations that Goodrich finds the extraordinary: the moments of emotional truth, the humour, the pathos, and the beautifully observant way he expresses the body language of dogs.

Zorro Gets an Outfit stick

I am a huge fan of the work of British illustrator Emma Chichester Clark. However, I reserve myPlumdog cover most heartfelt and noisiest enthusiasm for Plumdog Blog, a semi-daily diary of human/dog, dog/dog interactions and adventures written from the perspective of her actual dog Plum. Recently published in book form as PLUMDOG, there are huge dollops of humour in this collection, as well as Emma’s stunning watercolour illustrations. The assorted wanderings and musings documented in Plumdog have the spontaneity of a notebook, but even in its simplicity, and perhaps because of it, the effect is both evocative and deeply beautiful. As an Anglophile, Plumdog makes me yearn for the English countryside. As a dog lover, it just makes me smile.

Smelly Louie large coverIf you’ve had a dog, at some point you’ve had a stinky dog. It’s how they roll, so to speak. It may not seem like a thing to celebrate, but if you’re a dog, smell is everything. Leave it to Catherine Rayner to find beauty in unlikely and rather dirty places, as she most certainly does in SMELLY LOUIE. I believe Louie would agree that Rayner has done a fantastic job celebrating the hard work and attention to detail that goes into the creation of a dog’s ‘special smell’ – and how heartbreakingly vulnerable that smell is to a bubble bath. Smelly Louie is an amusing tale that makes stink a beautiful, and maybe even admirable thing.

TIME FOR BED, FRED! by Yasmin Ismail is about a young, playful dog who would rather jump Time for Bed Fred coverin a pile of flowers than go to bed. With simple, repetitive phrases, the book is aimed at younger audiences, but the art can be drooled over by all. Bold, beautiful strokes of line and colour give the book a retro appeal, and the story is itself is great fun.

Fred in flowersSome dogs like to frolic in flowers, others travel the world and run museums. In Zack Rock’s inventive and wonderfully amusing  HOMER HENRY HUDSON’S CURIO MUSEUM, Homer Henry, a bulldog and ‘eccentric explorer extraordinaire’, is the curator of an over-stuffed, Victorian-esque museum, full of mysterious items and mementos from his lifelong adventures. Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum is a book of discovery, revealing itself upon multiple reads. Even the heavily detailed illustrations hold secrets, and every gorgeous page is a thing of wonder.

Homer Henry Hudson's Curio Museum cover

THE RALPH STEADMAN BOOK OF DOGS is just plain fun. Not for young children, and not even a true picture book, but like the rest of the authors and illustrators in this post, Ralph sees dogs as creatures worthy of celebration – the good, and the downright nasty. It’s all fodder for his brilliant, beautiful art. At no point in this book, or in any of his books, does sentimentality play a role, but at the same time, his illustrations of dogs are funny, idiosyncratic, empathetic, fantastically inventive, and deeply, deeply pleasurable.

Ralph Steadman Book of Dogs Beanie

My Dog Thinks I'm a GeniusNot all dogs get starring roles in the books on this list. In Harriet Ziefert’s MY DOG THINKS I’M A GENIUS (illustrated by Barroux), the dog, Louie, is a secondary character. And though he may be an affable sidekick and resident art critic, the story itself is about a boy’s artistic explorations. As one would imagine in a book about the creative process, the art is magnificent. My Dog Thinks I’m a Genius slyly suggests that no matter what you do, there will always be someone who does it better, and sometimes it’s your dog. In the end, however, all that really matters is that you love what you do.

Homer on the porch2

At the other end of the sentimentality scale is HOMER by Elisha Cooper. This sweet and very touching tale is the story of an old dog; a dog who is winding down, but still passively Homer coverparticipating in life as experienced from the sun-drenched porch of his family’s holiday cottage. I love the stillness of Homer amidst the joyful chaos of his home. He is the quiet centre, appreciated and attended to by the human members of family, especially the children, while he in turn exudes a kind of companionable peacefulness. The watercolours are soft and impressionistic, telling Homer’s story simply, and beautifully. So often in children’s books, old age is treated as a preamble to death, not as stand alone subject with its own unique qualities and experiences. Old dogs can be old dogs for a long time, and it’s wonderful to have a story that reminds us of that.

Old Coyote by Nancy Wood

In a similar vein, OLD COYOTE by Nancy Wood, with illustrations by Max Grafe is a story about an aging dog, and yeah I know coyotes aren’t dogs, but close enough. This is one of the most beautiful books in my collection, and unlike Homer it is about death, but the coyote’s passing is handled with great gentleness. Still, revisiting the book made me cry all over again – but it’s a good sad – if such a thing is possible. Old Coyote has lived a long life, and had many children. He is ready to say goodbye, even if we aren’t. Grafe’s illustrations of the desert are absolutely stunning, infused with the gold and terracotta colours of the south. It is, however, his depiction of the old coyote that will catch your breath. Especially his wise, old eyes.

City Dog Country Frog cover“I am a tired frog. Maybe we can play remember-ing games,”, or so says the frog in CITY DOG, COUNTRY FROG (Mo Willems/Jon Muth), a book that also tackles death, but not as the central focus of the story (and it’s not the dog this time). City Dog, Country Frog is about unlikely friendships – and the seasons of life. A lively city dog strikes up a friendship with a country frog one spring – a friendship which thrives until winter, when the frog reaches the end of his natural life. Together, they enjoy the unique gifts of each season, but once spring rolls around again, so does the circle of life, and city dog finds a new friend. City Dog, Country Frog is very much a book that celebrates the present, and the idea that life goes on. Jon Muth keeps the story bright with his light-filled watercolours.
THING-THING by Cary Fagan, illustrated by Nicholas Debon. OK, if you don’t know Thing-Thing ThingThing, you must get to know Thing-Thing. Not only is this book laugh out loud funny, the concept is brilliant. An over-indulged brat throws his new toy Thing-Thing, ‘who was not quite a bunny rabbit, but not quite a dog either, nor a bear, or cat for that matter’ out of the window, much to his parent’s exasperation. For our purposes, Thing-Thing is a dog, and as the dog falls to the ground, we are privy to his thoughts. As the scenery rushes by, Thing-Thing notices all sorts of things, including the bluest robin’s egg he has ever seen. Happily, he lands in the arms of a child who truly loves Thing-Thing. The writing is witty (in a Douglas Adams sort of way), and the quirky art is sweet perfection.
 Big Wolf & Little Wolf
Again drawing from the not-quite-a-dog genre, I give my highest accolades to Nadine Brun-Cosme and Olivier Tallec for their trilogy of books starring a pair of wolves: Big Wolf and Little Wolf (not reviewed), BIG WOLF AND LITTLE WOLF AND THE LITTLE LEAVE THAT WOULDN’T FALL, and BIG WOLF AND LITTLE WOLF – SUCH A BIG ORANGE. These books epitomize why I have such a passion for picture books. They also challenge my storehouse of superlatives. Is it enough to say that each book is a work of art, or that the writing is imaginative and a little strange, and by the end of the series, gloriously uplifting? And how about those wolves? Who draws like that? These books are musts for anyone who loves dogs (I mean, wolves), and in particular, beautiful picture books that have cross-generational appeal.
Big Wolf Little Wolf Such an Orange last scene

Lastly, a book that encompasses not only dogs, but animals in general. Yes, I am a dog person, but I am also a cat person, and a critters-of-all-types person. GUARDIANS OF BEING  by Eckhart Tolle is illustrated by one of my all-time faves, Mutts cartoonist Patrick McDonnell. Guardians of Being pretty much sums up the role animals play in my life, especially dogs, but is not limited to them. It is a celebration of the spiritual gifts our animal companions bestow upon us. It is Zen with furballs and slobber. Like all the books on this list, it is perfection.

That’s it for now, but there will be more dog books to come, I assure you. I can already hear a few barking on my shelf.
And now, my constant inspiration and favourite doggy face of all time…Maggie
Maggie

  • Posted on April 16, 2015
Hurry Hurry Mary Dear cover3

Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear

Years ago, I used to work in an independent bookstore. Of the many customers who came my way, most have faded into the past. Sandy Muldrew is one of the memorable few. Not only have we remained friends, he shared, and continues to share, my passion for beautifully illustrated picture books. Although our (superb) tastes frequently overlap, our collections diverge, and so I thought – why not spread the passion around and invite him to write about one of his favourites? I am pleased to say, it worked! And so, I will turn this blog over to Sandy for the first, (and hopefully not the last), guest post:

When Donna asked me to write a guest blog for 32 Pages, I wasn’t sure if I had a worthy book that she had not yet touched upon. Recently, I have been relying solely on her excellent recommendations to add to my collection of illustrated treasures (and subtract from my bank account). But then I remembered a perfect candidate – it’s one of my seasonal favourites – Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear. While not exactly a children’s book, it is more of a charming poem illustrated with mirthful joy, written and illustrated by N.M. Bodecker in 1975 and then re-illustrated as a tribute by Erik Blegvad in 1997. They were two Danish expats and lifelong friends who shared an art studio in Connecticut. And this is where the poem itself takes place – on a farmhouse in New England – which is appropriate because the heroine of the piece embodies the pioneering spirit of Plymouth Rock. In fact, despite being thin as a rail, she is able to accomplish more in one day than the rest of us could hope to achieve in one year.

Hurry Hurry Mary Dear dill the pickles

The poem begins innocently enough with Mary’s layabout husband issuing the first of his many edicts: “Hurry, hurry, Mary dear, fall is over, winter’s here,” he yawns from the comfort of his warm bed. “Not a moment to be lost, in a minute we get frost! In an hour we get snow! Drifts like houses! Ten below!” At this, from dawn’s early light to dusk and night, we witness Mary’s super-human endurance as she completes one impossible task after another. All the while, she shows the patience of a saint as she is put through the paces by the constant commandments issued by her unseen spouse (supposedly from somewhere deep within the warm house – far, far away from draughts). “Pick the apples, dill the pickles, chop down trees for wooden nickels. Dig the turnips, split the peas, cook molasses, curdle cheese.” As the harvesting becomes increasingly ridiculous (cook molasses??), it is all offset by the wonderfully humourous illustrations of the scrawny Mary with her sharp nose, tiny feet, and ever-present apron and black stockings. She wields her axes and shovels like Hercules taking on the Hydra and Cerberus.

Hurry Hurry Mary Dear chop3

“Churn the butter, smoke the hams, can tomatoes, put up jams. Stack the stove wood, string the beans, up the storms and down the screens.”

Hurry Hurry Mary Dear molasses

Through all of this – as the wind picks up, the leaves fall, the trees bend, and snowflakes appear – our poor Mary, flushed and frazzled, seems to age twenty years. Her nose reddens, her hair becomes disheveled, and her back bends like an exhausted hunchback. As day turns to night, the impending snowstorm descends upon the house with it’s full fury. Mary finally retreats indoors but her day is far from done.

“Pull the curtains, close the shutters. Dreadfully the wild wind mutters. Oil the snowshoes, stoke the fires. Soon the roads are hopeless mires. Mend the mittens, knit the sweaters, bring my glasses, mail my letters.”

Hurry Hurry Mary Dear kitchen

Dutifully she scurries about and obeys the offscreen patriarch who we finally see again – stuffed into his rocker with slippered feet, pillow and pipe. “Toast the muffins, hot and sweet and good for me. Bake me doughnuts, plain and frosted…What, my dear? You feel exhausted? Yes, these winters are severe! Hurry, hurry…” With that, like the tea, she finally reaches her boiling point and dumps it all over his head “…Mary dear.” Perfect!

I love this poem not only for it’s humour but also for it’s comforting notion of winter hibernation. Thankfully none of us have to go through the Herculean efforts of Mary, but, still, there is always autumnal work to be done to ready one’s house for the season’s first snowfall. Is there anything more comforting than getting all the leaves raked, the hoses put away, the garden dug, and the windows washed before the first flakes fly? As the furnace kicks in and you get that whiff of singed dust from it’s summer disuse, you can’t help but feel snug and smug. Sporting slippers and sweater, you survey your realm with satisfaction (from the warmth of your indoor sanctuary). You brew a pot of tea, nibble on some biscuits, settle into your corner wingback, and open up a good book. And, all the while, the wild wind mutters. There is a primitive pleasure in this. It Hurry Hurry Mary Dear wind muttershearkens back to the first time we crawled into a cave to escape the elements. Despite the absence of biscuits (not yet invented), we, nevertheless, overcame the cold and the wet by lighting a fire, huddling together, and telling stories. Then, as now, we are still lulled to sleep as the muffled storm rages outside. While, today, it is much easier to keep warm and dry, the sense of satisfaction persists. We still take great comfort in retreating indoors and shutting the door on the cold – and that is wonderfully conveyed in a poem like Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear. Every fall, I reread it to experience, once again, that feeling of gezelligheid. I hope you will seek out this book and when the snows arrive next November (or possibly October…), you too, will be entertained and warmed by it.
(P.S. Watch for Mary’s constant companion – the ever-present black cat. It appears in every scene – sometimes in the foreground, often in the background, and once in shadow only.)

Review by Sandy Muldrew

Hurry, Hurry Mary Dear written by N.M. Bodecker, illustrations by Erik Blegvad. This edition published by Margaret K. McElderry, 1998

  • Posted on March 28, 2015
Mr Squirrel and the Moon 3

Mr Squirrel and the Moon

It’s been a little over five years since I started this blog, and rather fittingly, I am reviewing a book by the illustrator who inaugurated this space – Sebastian Meschenmoser, a German artist with an unusual flare for drawing squirrels. That original review of Waiting for Winter introduced readers of this blog – which I understand has grown beyond a few (reluctant) members of my family – to my deeply held belief that books have a way of finding us, of making their presence known.

Waiting For Winter found me in a bookstore on a chilly day in December 2009, and now, in yet another example of metaphysical tomfoolery, the newest (translated) book by Meschenmoser, Mr Squirrel and the Moon, comes to this blog by way of a Berlin-based friend (and resident book temptress) whose FB posts regularly feature beautifully illustrated picture books such as the aforementioned Mr Squirrel and the Moon.

Mr Squirrel and the Moon moonlanding

And Mr Squirrel and the Moon is indeed, beautiful: swirling multitudes of colour pencil strokes effortlessly merged into wispy shapes of foliage and, ever so sweetly, the forest creatures who populate Meschenmoser’s story. Once again, a squirrel (perhaps the squirrel from Waiting for Winter) sets the ball rolling, and it is a literal ball – a moon – which has abruptly landed on the squirrel’s tree. As the readers know, it is not the moon but a wheel of cheese that has fallen off a boy’s wagon and rolled over a cliff. The squirrel, unaware of this fact, makes two incorrect assumptions: one, that the cheese is a moon, and two, that someone will think he stole it. Either way, the big yellow orb is a nuisance, inspiring a series of amusing illustrations of the squirrel’s herculean efforts to rid himself of the moon – efforts which soon involve his friends – a hedgehog and a billy goat. Particularly funny are the black and white, double-page spreads of the squirrel and his buddies imagining themselves in jail, where their human cellmate is always shown working on a needlepoint project. There is even a tiny mouse toilet in the room! The intrepid crew eventually resolve their issue in an inventive…and delicious way, shooting the moon, or what’s left of it, back up into the sky where it belongs.

Mr Squirrel and the Moon hedgehog detail2

In Mr Squirrel and the Moon, Meschenmoser’s words and illustrations work in perfect harmony, radiating layers of charm, warmth, and humour in every flight of fanciful thinking and stroke of the pencil. There is a breeziness to the drawings, as if the pages might have been torn from an Impressionist’s sketchbook, but the illustrations are deeper than this, more nuanced. Mr Squirrel and the Moon billy goatMeschenmoser imbues every line with meaning, conveying the beautiful, comic possibilities of each scene with minimal detail. And yet, even in their simplicity, the squirrel and all his mates are realistically depicted, although with a delightful expressiveness perhaps not quite reflective of the animal kingdom. It is a difficult thing to do – what to leave in, what to leave out, but Meschenmoser strikes the right balance, creating a picture book that is both entertaining and strikingly beautiful. Mr Squirrel and the Moon is a book to love, and like Waiting For Winter, I’m so grateful it found me.

Mr Squirrel and the Moon cheese toss

Red Squirrel via The TelegraphSebastian Meschenmoser was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1980. He studied fine arts in Mainz, Germany, where he no doubt came into contact with the ear-tufted red squirrel or squirrels who served as models for his books. Meschenmoser is among Germany’s most successful and admired young illustrators for children (and at least one very enthusiastic adult). Although he has written many children’s books, including sequels to Waiting For Winter, very few have been translated into English. Get on it, people!

MR. SQUIRREL AND THE MOON by Sebastian Meschenmoser. Published by NorthSouth Books, 2015 (original German publication, 2006)

Waiting For Winter by Sebastian Meschenmoser (review HERE)

Mr Squirrel and the Moon big cheese

  • Posted on February 23, 2015
Smelly Louie stretches

Smelly Louie

What makes a great illustration? It’s never one thing. Some artists have a flare for colour, others excel at characterization. And then, there is line. It can make or break an illustration, but in the right hands a single line, or a thousand, elevates the subject matter, in this case an odoriferous dog, to a thing of pure beauty. Catherine Rayner is a master of all three, infusing her newest book Smelly Louie with an artistry one might not associate with filth. Like Louie however, Rayner relishes dirt – in all its malodorous and absurdly gorgeous possibilities.

Smelly Louie large cover

The opening pages of Smelly Louie are splattered with paw prints and tiny flies as Louie takes the walk of shame to a bubble-filled bathtub. As anyone who has ever bathed a dog, it’s a lot of effort for very little gain, especially for the pooch. In Louie’s case, smelling like roses and apple blossom is not something he has ever aspired to, and he spends the rest of the book trying to recover his ‘Special Smell’. Admiring the stench wafting off a fox in the garden, Louie inquires as to its origin, and the fox directs him toward an old boot in the brambles.

Smelly Louie Special Smell

“The boot smelt good, like mouldy cheese. But something was still missing.”

Smelly Louie BootLouie gets progressively dirtier as he explores the neighbourhood, seeking help from the various creatures he encounters. Wiggling in ‘wonderfully whiffy’ sludge and ‘pongy ponds’, Louie layers smell after smell like a true stink connoisseur until he finally achieves his own personal nirvana – his Special Smell. Rayner does a magnificent job visualizing Louie’s befouled, fly-ridden fur. In squibbles, splotches, and tangled strokes of watercolour and inks of varying widths and dirt tones, Louie’s coat comes alive with scent. Somehow, he is still beautiful, and the book itself is one of Rayner’s loveliest, and funniest outings. Perhaps it’s the joy Louie radiates as he returns home, proud and unrepentant, a haze of stench in his wake. Sadly, as Louie discovers shortly after entering the house, non-canines rarely appreciate the complexity or skill involved in the creation of a Special Smell. Sorry pal, we just don’t have the snout for it.

Smelly Louie wallows

All dogs smell. Fortunately, I had a virus a few years ago that, according to the doctor, laid a ‘catastrophic path of destruction’ deep into my nasal passages, rendering me unable to detect the finer nuances of canine stink. If I were to interpret my dog’s Special Smell, I would say it’s a mixture of old dirty pillow and biscuit crumbs, but I don’t think I’m getting the full olfactory picture. This is not the case with Smelly Louie. In a visual medium, Rayner plays with our senses, beautifully conveying the very essence of Louie – his smell, his Special Smell, and like all dogs, we get the sense that this is everything he wants us to know about him.

Smelly Louie bathes

Award-winning author and illustrator Catherine Rayner was born in Harrogate and now lives in Edinburgh. She has a BA Hons in Visual Communication and Illustration from Leeds College of Art and Edinburgh College of Art. Catherine’s other books include Sylvia and Bird, Norris, the Bear who Shared, Posy, Ernest and Solomon Crocodile. Harris Finds His Feet (reviewed HERE) won the 2009 Kate Greenaway Medal.

SMELLY LOUIE by Catherine Rayner, published by Macmillan, 2014

I have also previously reviewed the wonderful SYLVIA AND BIRD

  • Posted on December 24, 2014
Once Upon an Alphabet cover

And Now…Last But Not Least

And I mean that! As in previous years, I am at the end of 2014 without getting to the end of the to-be-reviewed books on my desk. Absolutely nothing to do with how I feel about these lovelies – I just ran out of time! Rather than carry them forward into the murky future, I would prefer to say a few words now, lest they be inexcusably ignored in favour of some pretty new thing in 2015. You know how that happens. Anyway, no order to this list, just deep appreciation and love. Longer reviews may follow…

Once Upon an Alphabet-Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins, 2014) This book has been on many ‘best of’ lists this year for all the usual Jeffersonian superlatives: it’s beautiful, funny, and deeply endearing. Also stupidly, ridiculously, unbelievably brilliant. Each letter of the alphabet is given its own short story. My favourite is ‘W’ for the Whiraffe: “The ingenious inventor had a favourite invention of all-the Whiraffe. It had the head of a whisk and the body of a giraffe. They became great friends over the years and enjoyed strawberries and whipped cream. The Whiraffe, of course, whipped the cream.” All the stories are wonderful and the art is inexplicably retro and original. It would be my favourite picture book of the year, except that The Farmer and the Clown hit me in the feels in a way that no other book did in 2014.

Oliver Jeffers V

 Sam & Dave Dig a Hole cover2Sam & Dave Dig a Hole-Mac Barnett, illustrations by Jon Klassen (Candlewick Press, 2014) Individually and collaboratively, these guys are redefining the children’s picture book genre in ways that haven’t been seen since Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith gave us The Stinky Cheese Man. Seriously, who writes a book about digging a hole? Don’t be fooled. Shoveling dirt may seem mundane, but Barnett and Klassen elevate the subject matter way beyond its assumed possibilities, turning Sam & Dave Dig a Hole into a great, boyish adventure with a delicious twist of wry, mind-bending humour. It also says something about the human condition: always striving, never quite achieving, up for anything.

Gustave-Rémy Simard, illustrations by Pierre Pratt (Groundwood Books, 2014) If you like odd, existential tales, steeped in grief, with a tinge of dark humour – or Gustave coverif you’re Russian, Gustave is the book for you. It begins with this: “He’s gone,” followed by a heart-wrenching illustration of a little mouse in tormented grief after Gustave, his brother, is killed by a cat. Gustave has sacrificed himself to save his brother, leaving his sibling with a whopping case of survivor’s guilt. The little mouse wanders the unfriendly streets fretting about what to tell his mother. To say the story ends in an unusual way would not be understating it; putting the Gustave detailbook in a different, decidedly comical light. Gustave is not about grief per se – it is entirely (and wonderfully) its own unique thing. I kinda love it. I love its courage and its strangeness. The illustrations by three-time Governor-General’s Award recipient Pierre Pratt are both beautiful and suitably tortured. Colours appear scraped and textured, dimly lit, brooding. The mice, however, are full of character and charm. Gustave is not for everyone, but I promise, it will be an experience.

Gustave's brother grieves

Mutts Diaries coverThe Mutts Diaries-Patrick McDonnell (Andrews McMeel, 2014) As the title suggests, this book is a collection of Mutts cartoons organized by character into diary entries. A great introduction for those who are new to this magnificent cartoon created by Patrick McDonnell. It is also perfect for the devotees (such as myself) who have favourite characters and wish to read their stories in concentrated form – in particular Guard Dog, the perpetually chained bulldog who is loveable and kind in spite of his cruel restraints. An excellent companion to the annual treasuries (for 2014: Living the Dream) and all the other Mutts related publications.

A Perfectly Messed-Up Story-Patrick McDonnell (Little, Brown & Company, 2014) An unusual publication from my very favourite person Patrick McDonnell in that it does not contain any of his Mutts characters. It is a stand-alone picture book about rejecting perfectionism in favour of embracing life’s inevitable messiness. Literally, that is; the book is covered in jam and peanut butter stains, much to the frustration of the main character Louis, who is merely trying to tell his story. I’m not so sure I’d be happy about someone messing up my books either, but the point is well-taken. The book reminds me of the Daffy Duck cartoon where the cartoonist intrudes on Daffy’s personal space. A Perfectly Messed-Up Story, like all of McDonnell’s stories, is deceptively simple, subversively Zen, and full of charm (and a bit of strawberry jam).

Perfectly Messed Up Story cover

Kuma Kuma Chan coverKuma-Kuma Chan, The Little Bear-Kazue Takahashi (Museyon, 2014) Originally published in 2001 in Japan, Kuma-Kuma Chan, The Little Bear is newly translated into English, and it is surely one of the sweetest, most endearing books I’ve read this year. A tiny book about a tiny, puff-ball bear living in the mountains, Kuma-Kuma Chan is charm personified. An unseen narrator wonders what Kuma-Kuma Chan does all day, and so page by page we learn the habits of the inventively self-entertaining bear: what he eats, how he plays, and all the other simple rituals of home life. Some activities are a little quirky; for instance, lining up the trimmings from his nails and gazing at them. Other pursuits speak to Kuma-Kuma Chan’s appreciation of the simple pleasures of a solitary life, like listening to the rain, or taking naps. The illustrations are soft and childlike, beautifully mirroring the quiet, meditative tone of the book. With shelves of loud, intentionally ironic children’s books trying mightily to attain cross-generational appeal, it’s wonderful to read a book that is genuinely sweet and gentle – aimed specifically at young children. It’s easy to see why this book is so popular in Japan. Hopefully Kuma-Kuma Chan, The Little Bear will spark interest here in North America.

Winter Moon Song cover

Winter Moon Song-Martha Brooks, illustrations by Leticia Ruifernández (Groundwood Books, 2014) I’ve not read many folktales about rabbits. Certainly, rabbits figure prominently in children’s literature (and my backyard), but they tend toward the fuzzy side of things, less on the mythological. (The long ears lack gravitas, I guess.) In the lovely Winter Moon Song, Martha Brooks gives us an ethereal rabbit story that reads like an old folktale and is, in fact, distilled from various legends about mother rabbit and the rabbit moon. Rabbit moon? Yes, I suppose shadows falling across the face of the moon do, at times, resemble a rabbit, especially when brought to life by Spanish illustrator Leticia Ruifernández. Wishing to honour his ancestral past in a meaningful way, a young rabbit, ‘not so small as to be a still-doted-upon baby, yet not so big enough to be noticed’, sings the traditional Winter Moon Song on a violet-infused winter night ‘to lighten the darkest month of the year with a trail of magic.’ Winter Moon Song is a story simply, and exquisitely told.

Cats are Cats coverCats are Cats-Valeri Gorbachev (Holiday House, 2014) For all those who appreciate cats, of all stripes. Miss Bell brings home a kitty from a pet store, and discovers, rather late, that the cat is in fact, a tiger. She loves him anyway, even as he lays waste to her home. Frankly, an actual kitty will lay waste to your home. When it comes to cats, size does NOT matter. Miss Bell buys some fish for her cat, not as food, but as companions. One of the fish…well, as Miss Bell says, fish are fish (even when they’re sharks). The illustrations by Ukraine emigre Valeri Gorbachev are sweet and funny. This is one tiger I would definitely invite over for tea.

Cats are Cats detail

Mr Chicken Lands On London-Leigh Hobbs (Allen & Unwin, 2014) In September, I visited London, England – very briefly, to see Kate Bush perform and visit a few galleries. After many hours on planes, trains (but no automobiles), I wearily found my hotel in the centre of Hammersmith, and Mr Chicken Lands on Londonmuch to my surprise…shock, actually, I was presented with a package at the front desk. What it could be, or for that matter, who knew I was even in London, in that hotel? When I ripped open the package, it was a book – Mr Chicken Lands on London from my blogger friend Zoe at the brilliant Playing By the Book. How wonderful is that??? Though my touristy adventures in London over the next few days mirrored those of Mr Chicken, I do hope I was not as conspicuous as monsieur poulet, although I did spend an awful lot of time staring at oversized maps. It’s a terribly funny book, with lively, quirky art. Thanks again to Zoe for welcoming me to London in such brilliant fashion!

That’s it. Apologies to any books that have found their ways into the nooks and crannies of my bookshelves, too shy to be reviewed. I’ll find you, and I’ll be gentle. Until then, Merry Christmas (yes, I posted this hours before the blessed event), and my deepest, deepest, gratitude to the illustrators, authors, fellow bloggers, and readers who have made the 2014 reading year so grand. THANK YOU! XXOO

  • Posted on December 15, 2014
Farmer & the Clown farmstead

The Farmer and the Clown

I was lucky enough to see some illustrations for this book earlier in the year and immediately thought The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee will be the book of 2014. There have been many beautiful children’s picture books published this year, with subject matter and illustration styles so diverse, it seems ridiculous to pick a favourite. And yet, there it is, in exquisite company yes…but at the top. The Farmer and the Clown is uncluttered storytelling; no words, but huge, breathtaking heart. It is a book told entirely in pictures – a visual narrative that is simply unforgettable.

The Farmer & the Clown meets farmer

The story opens on a prairie landscape of endless, empty horizon. A white-bearded farmer in a black hat is hoeing his field, a little stooped, crows circling in the sepia sky, when a circus train rolls by in the distance. Something falls off the caboose, and as the farmer approaches the figure, he sees a tiny clown in a pointed hat. He takes the clown in hand, and off they go to his farmhouse. In full makeup, the little clown is always smiling, but once the makeup is removed, so is the smile, and the face that emerges is both young, and frightened. The clown-child is confused and sad, but the farmer does his goofy best to cheer him up. Both are alien to one another, but the strangeness soon fades as the farmer teaches the child about life on the farm. They work and play alongside each other, milking the cow, juggling eggs, and enjoying a picnic under a tree. It’s hard to say who needs who the most. The farmer is alone, and possibly lonely, and the kid is far from home and family. There is no back story – we do not know what preceeded their current states, but in the here and now, they are wondrously present for one another. The farmer’s kindness toward the little clown is returned in amiable companionship and a dose of fun that was almost certainly missing from his life. Eventually, when the circus train returns, one story ends, but another begins. At the conclusion of The Farmer and the Clown, if there is any question that their lives have been uplifted, especially the farmer’s, it is answered with the final exchange of hats. Everything is different.

Farmer & the Clown no makeup

The Farmer and the Clown goodnight

The Farmer & the Clown the train

Marla Frazee is a relatively recent addition to my circus tent of brilliant illustrators. I first became acquainted with her work in Boot & Shoe (Beach Lane, 2013), which was one of my favourite books from last year, as well as God Got a Dog (Cynthia Rylant, Beach Lane, 2013). In those books, produced in her signature prismacolour, pencil and gouache, Frazee brings an unusual energy to her illustrations, as if there is an unseen breeze wafting through the imagery. In The Farmer and the Clown, Frazee’s illustrations are stilled, quieter. The endearing characterizations are there, and the gentle humour, but the overall atmosphere is more reflective, allowing the graceful story to unfold in warm, prairie-wide vignettes. Colour is flat and minimal, perhaps a reflection of the farmer’s lackluster life, until a little clown in yellow ruffles and a red cap shows up. The Farmer and the Clown is a profoundly moving, deeply charming, and gorgeously illustrated book about kindness, acceptance, and how unexpected moments and unlikely friendships can transform lives.

Farmer & the Clown goodbye

And there it is, my favourite book of 2014.

farmer-and-clown-cover

Marla Frazee is a southern California-based author and illustrator. She was awarded a Caldecott Honor for All the World and A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever. She is the author-illustrator of Roller Coaster, Walk On!, Santa Claus the World’s Number One Toy Expert, The Boss Baby, Boot & Shoe, as well as the illustrator of many other books including Mrs Biddlebox, The Seven Silly Eaters, Stars, and God Got a Dog. Marla teaches at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, has three grown sons, works in a small backyard cabin under an avocado tree, and has a dog named Toaster.

THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN by Marla Frazee. Published by Beach Lane Books, 2014

My short reviews of BOOT & SHOE and GOD GOT A DOG (click on the links and scroll down)

  • Posted on December 10, 2014
Any Questions Marie-Louise Gay

Any Questions?

Yes. I have one. How do you do it? When I opened Marie-Louise Gay’s newly published Any Questions? for the first time, it was like being handed a bouquet of freshly plucked wildflowers. As I progressed through the book, the room filled with light. I felt uplifted. This is what happens, what always happens, when I read her books. Any Questions? is her most adventurous picture book to date, and certainly her most beautiful. Gay centres the story around her own real-life experience as an author – in particular the many hundreds of questions she is asked (by children) about her books and especially, her creative process:

“How did you learn to draw?”

Where does a story start?

Do you put a cat in every book?

Any Questions purple beast

The inquiring minds are represented by Gay’s typical menagerie of whimsically drawn children (no one is better at this), cats, rabbits, and  ever-present snails; this time, however, they are not so much characters in the story as the inspiration. Their questions balloon out from the page in one continuous (and utterly charming) conversation, each illustration richly infused with Gay’s luminous watercolour palette. As questions are answered (on the page and in an appendix), Gay invites further participation from her acolytes as she creates a brand new picture book, The Shy Young Giant, itself a thing of sweet wonder in a wonder-filled story. Visually and narratively, there is a lot of bang for your buck in Any Questions. At it’s core, however, is a profound message about valuing curiosity and imagination.

Any Questions Shy Giant spread

There is a mini-trend this year in children’s books in which the writer directly engages with the characters, and sometimes even the reader, thus breaking the picture book equivalent of the fourth wall. Specifically, The Battle Bunny Book (Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett) and A Perfectly Messed-Up Story (Patrick McDonnell) bear the marks of having been ‘interfered with’ in the form of scribbles and jam stains courtesy of the ‘reader’. Like these two publications, Marie-Louise Gay plays with the typical format of a picture book, presenting it as an interactive enterprise (albeit with fictional characters), and in doing so, giving us a glimpse into her own creative process. As one might imagine, it’s starts with a blank page, and a question. A lot of questions.

Any Questions yellow

And yet, with the publication of each new book, Gay is becoming more and more playful with her answers. There is a fluidity to her illustrations that is almost dream-like, as if each scene, characters and all, comes tumbling straight from her imagination to the awaiting page – issues resolved, compositions exquisitely realized. As with Gay’s recent books, in Any Questions?, some illustrations are watercolour only, while others take a more multi-media approach, incorporating found paper and bits of text. One senses that Marie-Louise Gay’s internal conversation with an in-progress illustration is loose and chatty. She is open to wherever the story wants to go, and the result, as expressed so beautifully in Any Questions?, is pure joy.

Any Questions coverMarie-Louise Gay is a world-renowned author and illustrator of more than 60 children’s books. She has won many prestigious honours, including two Governor General’s awards and the Marilynn Baillie Picture Book Award. She has also been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and the Hans Christian Andersen Award, both of which she will surely win one day. Educated at the Institut des arts graphiques in Montreal where she studied graphic design, Gay moved on to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts School where she majored in animation, followed by illustration studies at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. Marie-Louise Gay currently lives and works in Montreal when she’s not out and about answering questions.

ANY QUESTIONS? by Marie-Louise Gay. Published by Groundwood Books, 2014

Previously reviewed (click on the link):

Roslyn Rutabaga and the Biggest Hole on Earth

Caramba and Henry

  • Posted on November 18, 2014
Plumdog Blog puddles

Plumdog

I found Plumdog Blog about a year after its inception. I’m not entirely sure how I stumbled upon this incredibly endearing, beautifully illustrated online diary of a dog and her owner, but once I did, I was hooked. Written by British Plumdog coverillustrator Emma Chichester Clark, or should I say, her dog Plum (with help from Emma), Plumdog Blog is a cleverly conceived and brilliantly executed glimpse into the life of a whippet/jack russell/poodle cross, and by extension, her human mum. As a children’s literature blogger, I am online for big chunks of the day – to the point of overstimulation. Plumdog, whenever it is posted (usually every two or three days), quiets the noise, instantly drawing me into a simpler, softer world – Plum’s world, but also a very English world, where grass stays green all year long, it rains an awful lot, and life, while sometimes harried, is always sweet. Plumdog collects the best of the posts in book form, and it is most definitely – one of the best books of the year.

Plumdog walking

Plumdog presents us with a world seen from an unusual perspective – the daily life of an illustrator from a dog’s point of view, and a dog’s life from the dog’s point of view. Beyond the obvious (and delightful) humour of the situation, what becomes clear, especially when read as a collection, is that Emma and Plum are living their lives at different speeds. Emma’s life, as one would expect of a prolific and popular illustrator, is a whirlwind of public/personal activity and looming deadlines, much of it (but not all) spent in the company of her observant little pup. Unlike humans, dogs are always in the moment – a point that is wondrously captured in Plumdog. We see, and more importantly, feel Plum’s joyful appreciation of the now, which more often than not revolves around water. Any puddle, stream, or lake will do, regardless of the weather. I think I know a dog or two like that.

Plumdog shadows

Still, life does not always go Plum’s way. Routines are interrupted, relationships with other dogs are mostly – but not always, friendly, and some days Plum is left behind, not knowing when or even if Emma will return (inspiring one of the most poignant moments in the book). I’ve often wondered what dogs (and cats) think when we leave them at home. Do they feel abandoned, or do they believe we are waiting just outside the door, and if so, do they think we are idiots? How do dogs experience time? Like Emma (and anthropomorphizers everywhere), I just naturally assume that dogs are capable of complex thought, which makes Plumdog a useful and exceedingly charming guide to the inner workings of a dog’s mind and, in all other ways, a perfect gem of a picture book.

Plumdog coming back 2

Prior to Plumdog Blog, I was a distant admirer of Emma Chichester Clark, but not overly familiar with her work. It was simply a matter of proximity – her books are not as well known in North America as they are in the UK and Europe. Since then, however, I have become a true fan of her art, and am slowly building my collection of books. One might assume that because Plumdog is a series of journal entries the art is mere dressing for Plum’s story – a visual record rather than fully realized illustrations, but this is not the case. The watercolours, especially the full-page spreads, are ravishing. Come for the dog, stay for the art! I am simply in awe of her ability to capture expression and body language with minimal brushstrokes, and the settings – interior and particularly exterior, are breathtaking. There is an immediacy to the illustrations which suggests a very sure (and quick) hand, and indeed, in Plumdog Blog (but not the book) the paper is often visibly warped by the watercolour. These are true in the moment creations, but taken as a whole, Plumdog weaves a tale that is full of warmth, humour, and above all, pure dog joy.

Plumdog Puddles 2

Emma and PlumAccording to her website, Emma Chichester Clark was ‘born in Hyde Park Corner, London, but grew up in the countryside in Ireland in an old white farmhouse surrounded by fields.’ A graduate of the Royal College of Art in London (tutored by none other than Quentin Blake and Michael Foreman, among others), Emma has illustrated many books, including the very popular Blue Kangaroo series, as well as books by Roald Dahl, Kevin Crossley, and Michael Morpurgo. She lives in West London with her husband, stepsons, and a lovely little dog named Plum.

PLUMDOG by Emma Chichester Clark. Published by Jonathan Cape, 2014

And for the continuing adventures of Plum, click on PLUMDOG BLOG. I demand it!

  • Posted on October 28, 2014
What There Is Before-the bed

What There Is Before There Is Anything There

I spent most of my childhood scared stiff. As the youngest in a family of seven, I was first to bed. There were no bedtime stories. I don’t recall being tucked in. It was ‘get to bed’ and that was it. Light on in the hallway. Door open. Once I was under the covers, I did not move a muscle or shift a single finger, for fear that I would disturb whatever or whomever was Liniers coverlurking in the shadows. It didn’t help that I would often smell boloney being fried in the kitchen downstairs, as if the party started once I went to bed. Otherwise innocuous early 70’s television theme songs like Mission Impossible wafting up the stairs deepened my anxiety, becoming synonymous with my banishment. Forty years later I no longer remember what I was afraid of, just a vague recall of the anguish bedtime represented.

Liniers umbrella guy

What There is Before There is Anything There, the newly translated book by the Argentine cartoonist Liniers, is a perfect reflection of that nameless fear. The boy in this story, like every similarly afflicted kid, knows that once the lights are turned out and ‘the ceiling disappears’, the dark is not empty. Indeed, as he lay in bed, the first in a series of strange little creatures descends from above – on an umbrella. It stands at the foot of his bed, staring and silent, and yet its lips are pursed, as if whistling. One by one, the rest of the creatures appear, surrounding the boy’s bed. None of these ghouls are particularly scary, and in fact are rather whimsical, but their wordless vigil is incredibly unnerving. Once all the creatures have gathered, the dark void takes shape, transforming the bedroom into a nightmarish wood. Gorey-esque branches surge toward the child, and a face appears in the murk.

Liniers black monster

Liniers I Am What There Is

The boy runs to his parents’ bedroom, where he is the recipient of that time-honoured parental admonishment – it’s just your imagination. When you’re a kid, there is no room for subtlety. It’s all real. Unlike so many ‘scary’ kids books, Liniers does not rationalize, dismiss, or even resolve the boy’s fear. It is what it is. Indeed, when the boy is allowed to sleep with his parents ‘for the last time’, the creatures follow him (or at least the little guy with the umbrella) to bed. It is a devilishly mischievous ending, and it made me giggle.

Liniers surrounded

Individually, these nightly visitors are not particularly threatening, and in a less menacing context they could be the boy’s imaginary playmates (with the exception of that, um, bit of weirdness in the dark). Liniers is, after all, a cartoonist, and while the story may be nightmarish, his gorgeous watercolour and pen illustrations (in particular his characterizations of the boy and his bedtime crew) are little gems of wicked humour and expert draftsmanship. What There is Before There is Anything There is a validation of the imaginative mind, regardless of where it leads. As the title suggests, making something out of nothing, literally pulling it out of the darkness, is the very essence of imagination.

Some children (and adults) might think this book too scary, but others will find the boy’s predicament familiar (as I did), and therefore reassuring. Most will appreciate the humour. As Liniers is keenly aware – it’s fun to be scared, and What There is Before There is Anything There is a lot of fun.

Liniers (full name Ricardo Siri Liniers) is an internationally well-known Buenos Aires-based cartoonist, whose daily comic strip Macanudo has run for over ten years in Argentina’s La Nación. His work has appeared in newspapers, books, Liniers detailand magazines, including The New Yorker and Rolling Stone. Liniers’ first North American picture book, The Big Wet Balloon was named a Parents Best Book of the Year. On the dedication page of What There is Before There is Anything There, Liniers states, “…to my parents, who turned out my light and lit up my imagination.” Perhaps, just perhaps, What There is Before There is Anything There is not just a quirky picture book, it is also an autobiographical story of a kid who grew up to be a brilliant artist.

 What There is Before There is Anything There by Liniers (translated by Elisa Amado). Published by Groundwood Books, 2014

  • Posted on October 05, 2014
Willy's Stories cover

Anthony Browne & the Illustration Cupboard

I had purchased tickets in March to see Kate Bush in London September 9th, but was unable to commit to the trip until three weeks prior to the concert date. Not sure why. A lot of money, I guess, for a short trip, but in the end, I realized that if I didn’t go, I would regret it for the rest of my life. It had been 35 years since Kate had last performed, and if I had to wait another 35, we’d both be dead. So, in mid-August, I finally booked my ticket. As it turned out, I would have about a day and half to explore London. I’d visited the city on previous occasions and did not feel compelled to hit all the the touristy stops, nor did I have the time, but I did want to see if there were any illustration galleries I could visit. Edmonton is a lovely place to live, but illustration, even at the University level, is not a visible, or truly appreciated art. There are fantastic illustrators in the city, and in Alberta, but no gallery caters to illustration art. We have neither the population nor the interest. In fact, I had never been to a gallery specifically dedicated to what I consider to be the finest of all the arts – picture book illustration.

Illustration Cupboard

The first thing that popped up on Google was THE ILLUSTRATION CUPBOARD in central London. And, in a delightful twist of fate, the upcoming exhibit would be featuring the art of Anthony Browne – former Children’s Laureate of Great Britain, primate painter extraordinaire, and one of my all time favourite illustrators. What a crazy random happenstance! So, the Illustration Cupboard was added to my list of destinations, along with the Tower of London (to meet the Raven Master), and a bookstore, if I could find one.

In the early afternoon of September 9th, I emerged from the Green Park District Line underground and, after several missteps, detours, and many failed attempts to orient myself using a map, I found the Illustration Cupboard, located in a very picturesque area of London (St James). A very busy, and high-end area as well. The gallery is tucked into a sloping street of shops, close to Fortnum & Mason (and its provocatively displayed sweets). I knew I was in the right place when I saw Anthony Browne’s newest book, Willy’s Stories, in the window. It was tremendously exhilarating to a: have found the place, and b: stand in front of Anthony Browne’s original artwork. The title of the exhibit was 30 Years of Willy the Wimp, his frequent protagonist (and chimpanzee) who is arguably Browne’s ‘shadow’ self. It was very interesting seeing the illustrations up close – they are far more delicate and beautiful than I could have imagined. This is not to suggest that the printed illustrations are anything less than magnificent, but the originals have a virtuosity of detail that, I can see now, is impossible to reproduce. There is genius in every line, whether in a chimp’s face, or the trunk of a tree. It is also oddly cheering to see areas of white-out. Watercolour, even for the great Anthony Browne, is a bitch.

Illustration Cupboard Gorilla

The Illustration Cupboard not only has original art, it also has the most exquisite collection of picture books, most of which have been signed; a crack house, in other words. I spent a long time in front of the Anthony Browne display but in spite of the first edition signed copies, I settled on his most recent book Willy’s Stories, which was also signed. I have most, if not all of his books at home, and as much as I would have liked to purchase ALL of the signed first editions, I just couldn’t. My addiction, thus far, is manageable, but given the right circumstances (robbing a bank), I could imagine spending many thousands of pounds in this gallery, starting with a certain chimp.

Illustration Cupboard selection

In addition to the Browne, I picked up a signed edition of The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde (Hutchinson, 2013), with illustrations by Alexis Deacon – an illustrator I’d never heard of, but fell in love with on the spot. Also, The Wonderful Egg by Dahlov Ipcar (Flying Eye Books, 2014). It’s a reissue of a book originally published in 1958. What can I say, I have a soft spot for vintage illustration, and the Ipcar The Selfish Giant coverbook has the most wonderful dinosaurs! There were many temptations at The Illustration Cupboard, including a selection of very beautiful limited edition books, in particular Through the Looking Glass, with illustrations by John Vernon Lord, but time was ticking, and I wasn’t at all certain that I could find my way back to the Green Park Underground. Turns out, I was right, ending up on embassy row, but a kindly man in a guard’s uniform came to my rescue, and I was soon on my way back to Hammersmith. My directional challenges were no fault of the Illustration Cupboard – the location being quite straightforward (once I found it). For reasons beyond my comprehension, I enjoy a certain, shall we say, mental distance from maps and logic, and at no point during my stay in London did I have a single clue as to where I was, or what direction I was facing.

It was several days (and many, many hours in airports) before I read through Willy’s Stories, which is a companion of sorts to Willy’s Pictures, published a few years ago. In Willy’s Pictures, Willy introduces the reader to his favourite works of art. In Willy’s Stories, it is great literature that inspires the affable chimp, and it begins with a trip to the library ~

“Every time I walk through these doors something incredible happens. I go on amazing adventures.”

Yes, and that’s just how I feel every time I open a new Anthony Browne book.

Willy's Stories down the rabbit hole

Reading, for Willy, is a full-immersion sport. One day he is Peter Pan, sword fighting with Captain Hook on the deck of a ship. Another day he’s a character in Alice in Wonderland, falling down a book-lined rabbit hole. As these classic children’s stories inspire Willy, so do they inspire Browne to create some of his most beautiful work to date. Typically, an Anthony Browne illustration is awash in bright colour, a counterbalance to the muted monkey-browns of Willy and his primate kin. Occasionally, however, Browne goes full on, fairy-tale dark, as in the painting that accompanies Willy’s description of a scene from the Wild Wood in The Wind in the Willows. The ghostly spectre of a fantastically gnarled tree sits in the middle of the page, every branch scarred by half-formed creatures. Eyes stare out from the murk while Willy, almost invisible in the autumnal colours of the forest floor, hides in a hollow at the base of the tree, terrified. Who knew Wind in the Willows could be so creepy, or inspire such dark imagery? There is nothing wimpy about that chimp’s imagination! And yet, in spite of the spookiness, Browne’s masterful illustration retains his signature playfulness in the humourously camouflaged details, like the row of books tucked into a hollow of the tree. In fact, books are present in every illustration in Willy’s Pictures (much like the bananas that have so often made appearances in previous books). As always, nothing is quite what it seems.

Willy's Stories tree

As gobsmackingly wonderful as it was to see Kate Bush in concert, the opportunity to see Anthony Browne’s original artwork was, in its own way, equally exhilarating, and inspiring. My deepest gratitude to the Illustration Gallery for having the foresight to run this show while I was in London. So kind of them! And of course, for their continued celebration and promotion of great illustration and illustrators. My only regret is that I couldn’t stay a longer. The current show (Sept 24 to Oct 18) is The Art of Shaun Tan, another one of my absolute faves. Ah well…

Willy's Stories WillyWILLY’S STORIES by Anthony Browne, published by Walker Books, 2014

Other Anthony Browne reviews:

One Gorilla: A Counting Book,

Willy’s Pictures

Little Beauty

For more exciting stories about my adventures in London, read THIS.